How the Rich Ruin the Environment

The solution? Curb overconsumption and overwork.

Alyssa Battistoni

A close-up of the Beehive Collective's 'True Cost of Coal,' which depicts what the world was like before the mass production and consumption of energy, and what it might be like afterwards. (Beehivecollective.org)

Excerpt­ed with per­mis­sion from Jacobin mag­a­zine.

The global wealthy may consume far more than the rest, but global consumption can’t be leveled out by bringing everyone up to even Western median levels; consumption in rich nations, even at relatively low levels of income, has to decline if we’re to achieve some measure of global equality.

Envi­ron­men­tal­ists have long lec­tured Amer­i­cans about overuse of nat­ur­al resources. By now, the talk­ing points on over­con­sump­tion are famil­iar: 5 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion uses 25 per­cent of its resources, and emits about the same per­cent­age of its green­house gas­es; if the whole world lived like Amer­i­cans, we’d need four plan­ets, or maybe five. We eat too much meat, dri­ve too many miles, live in hous­es that are too big and too far apart, shop too much for stuff we don’t need. When it comes to cli­mate change, it’s even worse than the num­bers sug­gest: West­ern nations out­source a huge per­cent­age of emis­sions to the places that increas­ing­ly pro­duce our goods.

Such inter­na­tion­al dis­par­i­ties have, of course, long pre­sent­ed a chal­lenge to those con­cerned with both domes­tic and glob­al jus­tice: How to acknowl­edge that America’s poor are wealth­i­er than most of the world with­out sim­ply con­clud­ing that they’re part of the prob­lem? But while dis­cus­sions of con­sump­tion tends to focus on a uni­ver­sal we,” as epit­o­mized by the famous Pogo Earth Day car­toon — we have met the ene­my, and he is us” — it’s impor­tant to look more close­ly with­in the rich world rather than sim­ply heap­ing scorn on nation­al averages.

Depic­tions of Amer­i­can con­sumerism tend to focus on the likes of Wal­mart and McDonald’s, sug­gest­ing that blame lies with the rav­en­ous, grasp­ing mass­es. Mean­while it’s trendy for the wealthy to appear vir­tu­ous as they dri­ve Prius­es, live in homes that tout green design,” and eat organ­ic kale. But whether you care about the envi­ron­ment,” believe in cli­mate change, or ago­nize over your coffee’s ori­gins doesn’t mat­ter as much as your tax brack­et and the con­sump­tion habits that go with it.

Con­sump­tion doesn’t cor­re­spond per­fect­ly to income — in large part because of pub­lic pro­grams like SNAP that sup­ple­ment low-income house­holds — but the two are close­ly linked. The Con­gres­sion­al Bud­get Office esti­mates that the car­bon foot­print of the top quin­tile is over three times that of the bot­tom. Even in rel­a­tive­ly egal­i­tar­i­an Cana­da, the top income decile has a mobil­i­ty foot­print nine times that of the low­est, a con­sumer goods foot­print four times greater, and an over­all eco­log­i­cal foot­print two-and-a-half times larg­er. Air trav­el is fre­quent­ly pegged as one of the most rapid­ly grow­ing sources of car­bon emis­sions, but it’s not sim­ply because bud­get air­lines have democ­ra­tized the skies” – rather, fly­ing has tru­ly explod­ed among the hyper-mobile afflu­ent. Thus in West­ern Europe, the trans­porta­tion foot­print of the top income earn­ers is 250 per­cent of that of the poor. And glob­al car­bon emis­sions are par­tic­u­lar­ly uneven: the top five hun­dred mil­lion peo­ple by income, com­pris­ing about 8 per­cent of glob­al pop­u­la­tion, are respon­si­ble for 50 per­cent of all emis­sions. It’s a tru­ly glob­al elite, with high emit­ters present in all coun­tries of the world.

But that doesn’t mean Amer­i­ca is off the hook alto­geth­er. The glob­al wealthy may con­sume far more than the rest, but glob­al con­sump­tion can’t be lev­eled out by bring­ing every­one up to even West­ern medi­an lev­els; con­sump­tion in rich nations, even at rel­a­tive­ly low lev­els of income, has to decline if we’re to achieve some mea­sure of glob­al equality.

For those in rich coun­tries, this sounds sus­pi­cious­ly close to an argu­ment for aus­ter­i­ty: We’ve been prof­li­gate, and now the bill is com­ing due. That may be eas­i­ly rec­on­ciled with more ascetic strains of envi­ron­men­tal­ism and anti-con­sumerist Left cur­rents. But for those who aren’t both­ered by deca­dent con­sump­tion so much as by the fact that so few are able to enjoy it — and who are wary of recall­ing Sovi­et bread lines — the prospect of lim­it­ing con­sump­tion is deeply worrisome.

It’s hard to talk about con­sump­tion with­out a whiff of mor­al­iz­ing dis­ap­proval, as if there was some­thing inher­ent­ly wrong with hav­ing nice things. So the con­dem­na­tions of con­sumer cul­ture that once occu­pied social crit­ics have large­ly fall­en out of fash­ion, seen as too Puri­tan, too patron­iz­ing, too snob­bish — and maybe even too bor­ing. We get it already.

But it’s impor­tant to dis­tin­guish between dif­fer­ent types of con­sump­tion. For all the res­o­nances in the rhetoric of anti-con­sumerist envi­ron­men­tal­ism and aus­ter­i­ty, reduc­ing pub­lic con­sump­tion would actu­al­ly be an envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter. Reduc­tions in pub­lic goods tend to pro­duce increas­es in pri­vate con­sump­tion: Peo­ple dri­ve cars instead of tak­ing the bus, move to a house with a yard instead of going to the park, buy books and home enter­tain­ment sys­tems instead of going to libraries and muse­ums, drink bot­tled water instead of tap — if they can afford to. Those who can’t just have to go without.

And while hav­ing stuff doesn’t make you a mis­er­able soul­less mate­ri­al­ist, as some of the shriller anti-con­sumerist rhetoric would sug­gest, it doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly make you hap­pi­er, either. Rather, the sta­tus tread­mill” fre­quent­ly does the oppo­site: fuel­ing anx­i­ety, inad­e­qua­cy and debt under the ban­ner of democ­ra­cy and freedom. 

We need to explic­it­ly shift toward work­ing less — to reori­ent the con­sump­tion-leisure trade­off towards the lat­ter on a social lev­el — and share the work that remains more even­ly. The soci­ol­o­gist Juli­et Schor says we could work four-hour days with­out any decline in the stan­dard of liv­ing; sim­i­lar­ly, the New Eco­nom­ics Foun­da­tion pro­pos­es we could get by on a 21-hour work­week. Mean­while, David Ros­nick and Mark Weis­brot sug­gest that the U.S. could cut ener­gy con­sump­tion by 20 per­cent by shift­ing to a sched­ule more like West­ern Europe’s, with 35-hour work­weeks and six weeks of vaca­tion — cer­tain­ly not a panacea, but hard­ly impov­er­ish­ing for a start. In a study of indus­tri­al­ized nations over the past fifty years, Schor, Kyle Knight and Gene Rosa find that short­er work­ing hours are cor­re­lat­ed with small­er eco­log­i­cal footprints.

While mak­ing peo­ple work shit­ty jobs to earn” a liv­ing has always been spite­ful, it’s now start­ing to seem sui­ci­dal. So per­haps it’s time to reclaim job-killing envi­ron­men­tal­ism, this time not as a project that demo­nizes work­ers, or even work — but rather, as one that rejects work done for its own sake. Instead of stig­ma­tiz­ing, crim­i­nal­iz­ing, and impris­on­ing the unem­ployed and non-indus­tri­ous poor,” per­haps we should see them, as David Grae­ber sug­gests, as the pio­neers of a new eco­nom­ic order” — one where we all work and con­sume less, and have more time for oth­er pursuits.

In fact, address­ing envi­ron­men­tal issues sug­gests the need not only for new kinds of jobs but for new approach­es to work alto­geth­er. No work or human activ­i­ty, how­ev­er removed from the land,” is with­out envi­ron­men­tal impact — but some work is less mate­r­i­al-inten­sive than oth­ers. An eco­log­i­cal­ly viable future will rely on many kinds of work that are typ­i­cal­ly under­val­ued, or not con­sid­ered work at all — car­ing for peo­ple and ecosys­tems; build­ing com­mu­ni­ties; learn­ing and edu­cat­ing. This emphat­i­cal­ly doesn’t mean we should all become arti­sans engaged in small-scale pro­duc­tion; to the con­trary, there are dan­gers in roman­ti­ciz­ing sup­pos­ed­ly nat­ur­al” and unalien­at­ed forms of labor. Reject­ing fast food in favor of gar­den­ing and can­ning, for exam­ple, might just rein­sti­tute a toil­some régime for women; acknowl­edg­ing the prob­lems of cer­tain max­i­mal­ist projects can’t mean ced­ing lib­er­a­to­ry goals. But done right, a reeval­u­a­tion of work from an eco­log­i­cal per­spec­tive could ele­vate the unpaid work of mak­ing a social, liv­able world.

Pro­pos­als to short­en the work­week are often defend­ed on the basis of giv­ing peo­ple more time for what they will — to spend time with friends, fam­i­ly, and loved ones, start a band, write a nov­el, cook a meal, and so on. But call­ing those activ­i­ties leisure” dimin­ish­es their impor­tance in mak­ing a life with less stuff a worth­while and ful­fill­ing one. Like­wise, the word leisure” doesn’t cred­it the fact that strong com­mu­ni­ties are as impor­tant for sur­viv­ing nat­ur­al dis­as­ters as strong sea­walls. If we’re pay­ing peo­ple to build the lat­ter, shouldn’t we also pay them to build the former?

We need to think seri­ous­ly and expan­sive­ly about these kinds of work and val­ue — and about the real costs that sus­tain­abil­i­ty” will impose on indi­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties. And we need to rec­og­nize that this is a tru­ly col­lec­tive project — that indi­vid­u­al­ized, atom­ized sys­tems of work and reward are increas­ing­ly unten­able in the face of the inter­de­pen­dent tan­gle in which we’re enmeshed.

How might we do that? To begin with, by divorc­ing income from con­ven­tion­al notions of pro­duc­tion, and by insti­tut­ing a social wage in the form of uni­ver­sal basic income. Basic income won’t, in and of itself, solve envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems; it won’t replace coal plants with solar pan­els or ease pres­sure on deplet­ed aquifers. If insti­tut­ed as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for cuts to oth­er social pro­grams, it would be dis­as­trous both social­ly and envi­ron­men­tal­ly; robust pub­lic ser­vices are nec­es­sary if we’re to live on less. But it marks a crit­i­cal start­ing point in rethink­ing the rela­tion­ship between labor, pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion, with­out which envi­ron­men­tal hand-wring­ing will go nowhere.

More prag­mat­i­cal­ly, in pro­vid­ing an alter­na­tive to depen­dence on destruc­tive indus­tries and remov­ing the threat of job black­mail from com­mu­ni­ties des­per­ate for liveli­hoods, it makes change a real option, giv­ing work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties more pow­er to demand pro­tec­tions against envi­ron­men­tal harms. It can start to reori­ent social focus away from an eter­nal game of con­sump­tion catch-up toward the good life.

It admit­ted­ly won’t do much to curb the upper bounds of con­sump­tion, at least not right away. But it might point in that direc­tion. Envi­ron­men­tal­ists like to point to World War II for evi­dence that peo­ple will accept restric­tions on con­sump­tion for the sake of a shared cause, but the so-called Great­est Gen­er­a­tion didn’t exact­ly accept rations with a patri­ot­ic grin. What that expe­ri­ence does demon­strate, how­ev­er, is that while peo­ple don’t like lim­it­ing con­sump­tion under any cir­cum­stances, what they real­ly don’t like is cut­ting back if every­one else isn’t doing the same. That sen­ti­ment is typ­i­cal­ly mobi­lized in ser­vice of anti-wel­fare pol­i­tics: why should I have to work if some­one else just gets a check? But dur­ing the war, it went the oth­er way: More than 60 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion sup­port­ed cap­ping incomes at $25,000 a year, a rel­a­tive­ly pal­try $315,000 today.

Of course, the post-work future has long been over the hori­zon; to pro­pose it as a solu­tion to such time-sen­si­tive prob­lems may seem wild­ly, even irre­spon­si­bly utopi­an. The rev­o­lu­tion might hap­pen in time to avoid envi­ron­men­tal cat­a­stro­phe, but we prob­a­bly shouldn’t count on it, though some African cli­mate activists have put basic income grants, financed by wealthy nations’ pay­ment of eco­log­i­cal debt, at the cen­ter­piece of their demands.

Even the Unit­ed States presents some inter­est­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. One promi­nent alter­na­tive to a straight car­bon tax or cap-and-trade sys­tem is a pol­i­cy known as tax-and-div­i­dend, in which the pro­ceeds from a car­bon tax would be dis­trib­uted uncon­di­tion­al­ly to all cit­i­zens – sim­i­lar to the oil div­i­dend paid to every Alaskan res­i­dent. It’s defend­ed as a com­pen­sato­ry mech­a­nism for the high­er ener­gy prices that would result from a car­bon tax; in more blunt­ly polit­i­cal terms, it func­tions as a bribe to gar­ner sup­port for a tax that would oth­er­wise be unpop­u­lar. There are plen­ty of crit­i­cisms to be lev­eled against the plan as cur­rent­ly designed, par­tic­u­lar­ly if it’s con­sid­ered a stand-alone cli­mate solu­tion — indi­vid­ual div­i­dends won’t main­tain lev­ees, sup­port pub­lic trans­porta­tion sys­tems, or build afford­able urban hous­ing. But it’s also a poten­tial wedge into new oblig­a­tions and rela­tion­ships: the first sug­ges­tion of an uncon­di­tion­al guar­an­teed income, financed most­ly by a tax on the envi­ron­men­tal­ly destruc­tive con­sump­tion habits of the wealthy. It’s an asser­tion of pub­lic own­er­ship of the atmos­phere and the stak­ing of a new claim to pub­lic resources.

Viewed as a bul­wark link­ing uncon­di­tion­al liveli­hood pro­vi­sion to envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty, it could be the begin­ning of a much larg­er project of ensur­ing decent stan­dards of liv­ing for all regard­less of pro­duc­tive input, while reclaim­ing envi­ron­men­tal com­mons from the false yet per­sis­tent nar­ra­tive of tragedy.

That may seem over­ly hope­ful about dim prospects. To be sure, it must be empha­sized that this is meant as a sug­ges­tion for a gen­er­al direc­tion rather than a pre­cise solu­tion. While we can draw ideas from past efforts to cope with envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems, there are no real prece­dents for what we now face. We’re going to have to fig­ure some of this out as we go — which is anoth­er argu­ment in basic income’s favor. Address­ing envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems will entail sig­nif­i­cant and wide­spread changes, yet with­out a com­mit­ment to uncon­di­tion­al social pro­vi­sion, talk of resilience, flex­i­bil­i­ty, and adap­ta­tion are all too eas­i­ly col­lapsed into jus­ti­fi­ca­tions of per­pet­u­al precarity.

Observ­ing the protests out­side the Copen­hagen cli­mate sum­mit in 2009, reflect­ing on the appar­ent ten­sion between the recog­ni­tion of lim­its cau­tioned by those claim­ing there is no plan­et B” and the lim­it­less­ness implied by chants of every­thing for every­one,” Michael Hardt sug­gest­ed the need to devel­op a pol­i­tics of the com­mon that both rec­og­nizes the real lim­its of the earth and fos­ters our unlim­it­ed cre­ative capac­i­ties — build­ing unlim­it­ed worlds on our lim­it­ed earth.” Vir­ginia Woolf might seem an odd place to turn in response, but her essay A Room of One’s Own, while best known as a clas­sic piece of fem­i­nist polemic, could serve just as well as a man­i­festo for such a pol­i­tics. In it, she reflects on the instinct for pos­ses­sion, the rage for acqui­si­tion” which keeps the stock­bro­ker and the great bar­ris­ter going indoors to make mon­ey and more mon­ey and more mon­ey when it is a fact that five hun­dred pounds a year will keep one alive in the sun­shine.” With that five hun­dred pounds, she wrote, came the free­dom to think and write as she pleased. We should add a few more things to the list — uni­ver­sal health­care, a bus pass — but fig­ur­ing out what it takes to keep all sev­en-bil­lion-plus peo­ple on the plan­et alive in the sun­shine will be the fun­da­men­tal task of the twen­ty-first century.

The post-work future is often char­ac­ter­ized as a vision of a post-scarci­ty soci­ety. But the dream of free­dom from waged labor and self-real­iza­tion beyond work sud­den­ly looks less like utopia than necessity.

Find­ing ways to live lux­u­ri­ous­ly but also light­ly, ade­quate­ly but not asceti­cal­ly, won’t always be easy. But per­haps in the post-post-scarci­ty soci­ety, some­where between fears of gen­er­al­ized scarci­ty and dreams of gen­er­al­ized deca­dence, we can have the things we nev­er man­aged to have in the time of sup­posed abun­dance: enough for every­one, and time for what we will.

In These Times is proud to fea­ture con­tent from Jacobin, a print quar­ter­ly that offers rad­i­cal per­spec­tives on pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics. Sup­port Jacobin and buy a four-issue sub­scrip­tion for just $19.

Alyssa Bat­tis­toni is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in polit­i­cal the­o­ry at Yale and an asso­ciate fac­ul­ty mem­ber at the Brook­lyn Insti­tute for Social Research. Her writ­ing has appeared in Dis­sent, n+1 Moth­er Jones and Jacobin, where she is on the edi­to­r­i­al board.
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